Deep Dive: Twitter and the Internet Mind

The exodus of a number of Twitter users first began when Elon Musk’s intent to purchase the platform was first reported in April 2022. The deal has now been completed, as we’re all well aware.

Unhappy with Musk’s politics, oft-brash behavior, and his divisive perspective on utilitarianism, a number of celebrities and high-profile users defected from the platform including Grey’s Anatomy and Bridgerton creator Shonda Rimes, actress Amber Heard, and Billions creator Brian Koppelman. Other celebrities and public personas have followed suit. Activist and provocateur Shaun King chose to make his profile private in a protest that is likely to last several weeks at most.

After a week of tumult, Musk has now laid off an estimate 3,700, or roughly half, of a workforce that nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022. This is against the backdrop of microeconomic and macroeconomic changes to advertising revenues, many of which have been covered here. Inflation, war, and Apple’s privacy changes have contributed to a plunge in digital advertising spend. The Wall Street Journal notes:

Twitter rival Snap Inc. this year said it was letting 20% of staff go. Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. also has indicated it was trimming ranks.

This tracks with a shift in spend away from these social media networks and towards retail media networks like Amazon’s, Walmart’s, and Target’s. Our August report led with the following perspective as to why. In ways, it foreshadowed the following analysis of what I believe makes Twitter valuable to Musk’s suite of public and private companies devoted to civilization-building.

First-party data is defining this era of advertising and sales. Companies are now in a race against time: they’ll build, acquire, or market to the platforms that have it.

Twitter’s growth is more sluggish than Snapchat’s, Facebook’s, Google’s, and TikTok’s (which is a private company). What will Twitter look like with Elon Musk as CEO? That may not be the right question. What will the world like look under Musk’s Twitter management? I have a few theories.

It’s starting to come into view, and what’s on the horizon is a privately-held communications platform that prioritizes Musk’s sense of civic responsibility, proclivity for unfettered free speech above other (valid) concerns like the legitimacy of news media, and an inclination to fall back on the legal system to handle issues involving libel, slander, or tortious interference. Given that the content moderation team was of the first to receive pink slips, these instances are likely to rise. The freedom of speech is a constitutional right. However, what you say or write has consequences that may require legal expenses. In April 2022, Musk tweeted:

The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all. By “free speech,” I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.

So what does this mean? It means that Twitter will look more like the public discourse that exists outside of its digital walls.

It will be rarer for arbitrary decisions to be made by non-legal committees for matters like defamation or deplatforming. It was Musk who once won a costly Twitter defamation civil suit by employing a “JDart” strategy after publishing a highly derogatory message about one of the Thailand cave divers. Musk claimed that he made an ill-tempered joke, deleted it, apologized for it, and issued responsive tweets to move on from the matter. According to his ultimately victorious stance, the accusation that he made couldn’t have been anything beyond a joke.

Musk would rather a system of enablement that requires legal fees for its users than a platform that would have reduced or outright prevented the need for such a costly administrative exercise. The vast majority of Twitter users may not be able to afford to pursue or defend against such claims made on Twitter; this is another example of the platform as a microcosm of greater society. And I believe that Musk sees this as one of the costs for what he believes Twitter can become.

Everything that’s changed at Twitter since Musk took over could be projected by anyone who follows Musk’s philosophies or understands any of his professional ambitions. The controversial figure fired former CEO Parag Agrawal immediately, spread misinformation about a physical attack on a politician’s husband, and announced changes to the platform that will go into effect in the coming weeks to include pay-to-play for verification. We wrote about Musk’s approach to Twitter when news of the billionaire’s takeover first surfaced in April:

In a recent interview, Elon Musk declared that he didn’t “care about the economics [of Twitter] at all.” The serial entrepreneur, technology savant, occasional philosopher and full-time provocateur views the platform as part of the “future of civilization,” a matter that he seems to have a keen interest in. See: electric vehicles, civilian space travel, civilization on Mars. He insists that having a platform that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” is key to societal norms for the world that we have.

How Musk defines Twitter’s policy of trust and inclusivity will certainly change. Musk, a public persona who has maintained a healthy distaste for traditional public relations and establishment media, will make business decisions that reflect his philosophies and professional / civic ambitions. The first impact will be the shift in the perception of what the “blue check” means in the context of gatekeeping news and popular interest. Remember, Musk is the opposite of Bezos in this respect. He has rarely given credence to traditional media; instead he often communicates directly to shareholders, fans, customers, and foes. There is an inkling of his philosophy towards media in the idea that Musk wants you to pay for that right to wear the blue check.

It’s part of the planned overhaul of Twitter Blue, the currently $4.99 a month subscription that users can pay for in order to unlock additional features. The product no longer has a native team (they were laid off). Now, The Verge reports that Musk has mandated employees to introduce paid verification by November 7 (or be fired), charging $19.99 – make that $8 – a month giving verified users 90 days to subscribe or otherwise lose their blue checkmark. There are a lot of questions that remain, as laid out by Casey Newton for The Platformer, which first reported on the paid verification:

Asking its elite user base to pay to keep their verification badges — which confirm the identity of individuals and organizations but have also come to serve as a status symbol — could accelerate the growth of Blue. The @verified account currently follows around 428,000 accounts, and it is not unreasonable to imagine that tens of thousands of them would pay to remain verified.

But many more would not, and it’s unclear what effect the loss of verification badges would have on hundreds of thousands of accounts run by world leaders, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and journalistic outlets for whom verification is important to their credibility. The potential of the move to create more avenues for disinformation seems significant.

The primary goal is to grow Twitter’s subscription revenue to half of overall revenue – right now, advertising makes up the majority of Twitter’s revenue. Twitter will likely see a large number of users give up their blue checks instead of paying for them, making it possible for bots and other bad actors to imitate other peoples’ accounts. It’s also a way to “rent-seek” news organizations to pay for better positioning on the app, by essentially having to pay for reporters and official accounts to be verified in order to separate real news accounts from misinformation accounts. Musk revealed that he thinks of it as a privilege for those who want the blue check, rather than a utility for users who are navigating content on the app.

More change is expected to come. Musk’s next order of business is to take Twitter private, and there will be a compounded shift in how Twitter is used when that is expected to happen on November 8.

Expect a flood of renewed interest, as people who’ve left the platform for alternatives (Parler, Truth Social, etc) will likely come back. This, just in time for a testy midterm election season that will immediately put Musk’s existing workforce to the test, including content moderation. Will misinformation about the election spread easily on Twitter? And what will that mean for users, news organizations and American politics? For the most part, those decisions will come down to Musk. As the New York Times reported:

With the deal’s completion, Twitter’s board of directors will dissolve and its nine members will no longer preside over the company’s operations. Mr. Musk will most likely appoint a new board made up of friends and investors who helped fund the acquisition. The new board will be responsible for plotting Twitter’s trajectory as a private company.

There will also be less public pressure from the stock market, which could be promising for Twitter. But private pressure will still exist from banks. This private pressure is likely to persist as Musk executes what I believe will be his longer-term vision for monetization.

The Internet Mind

The one common trait shared by Musk’s companies are their implied relationship with the betterment of civilization. Twitter is no exception and I believe that if you were to diagram the many synergies that Musk believes his companies share, Twitter could rest at the center.

It is the first place you go to see a launched SpaceX vessel, it’s the first place you go to observe Musk communicating directly with Tesla bulls. There, commentary on the Boring Company rises and falls with political convenience. And of course any update on Neuralink’s progress will be seen there before all else. Why? Musk and his 113 million followers sit at the center of Twitter’s influence – whether that is a good thing or bad. Futurists have long believed that products like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram are examples of the Internet Mind – a melding of thought patterns, ideas, and ideals. A sort of collectivism that represents the directional trajectory of society. The Economic Times explained his viewpoint succinctly:

Through his tweets, Musk suggested that Twitter can be seen as a group mind or “hive mind”. A group mind is where multiple minds or consciousnesses are linked into one collective intelligence.

Twitter is the most prolific of the examples of the Internet Mind. News is followed, trends are set, social status is shared, anecdotes revealed, and movements begun. It happens there far more than anywhere else and in ways that are universally understandable. One can translate words to another language but we cannot translate arm gestures or facial expressions on TikTok to communicate proper context across cultures or classes. Naturally, Musk’s critics disagreed. Bryan Edward Hill was one of them. His reply was probably the most sensible:

We’re not made to be interconnected to everyone in a collective super-intelligence. Social media, and the incessant stream of others thoughts is part of why we have mood regulation issues, low-self esteem, etc.

But maybe we are. Maybe we are synthesizing the data that we collect from Twitter in ways that are overwhelming to the senses. Maybe, Musk can build a product that helps us understand sentiment in the aggregate and sentiment across a spectrum of shared beliefs or characteristics.

Example: How is America’s economic status viewed globally vs. locally? Is there a way to consume that data without bias? How much would those vying perspectives (if opposed) be worth to advertisers, consultants, or anyone else curious for data collected in real time? The Internet Mind has never been properly mined for anything other than advertising dollars and pop cultural cues. What if it could move civilization forward if done correctly? I believe that Musk’s intent is more aligned with this than he’s given credit for. Hill’s reply to Musk was striking but, historically-speaking, it is incorrect. In 2017, Tim Urban wrote a highly detailed and meticulously written longform post on Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. In it, he stated:

Language allows the best epiphanies of the very smartest people, through the generations, to accumulate into a little collective tower of tribal knowledge—a “greatest hits” of their ancestors’ best “aha!” moments. Every new generation has this knowledge tower installed in their heads as their starting point in life, leading them to new, even better discoveries that build on what their ancestors learned, as the tribe’s knowledge continues to grow bigger and wiser.

This brings us back to the importance of first-party data in the context of advertising sales: “First-party data is defining this era of advertising and sales. Companies are now in a race against time: they’ll build, acquire, or market to the platforms that have it.” But maybe, this is just as much about understanding the collective intelligence that can be gleaned from Twitter. There is no shorter distance on the internet than that of the human brain to the thumbs of a Twitter user. Musk wants that data set to be as robust as possible. He’s apparently willing to tolerate the fallacies and shortcomings of humanity to get there.

He’s recruited SpaceX engineers and Boring Company engineers to supplement (or replace) the talent that was laid off from Twitter. But in the end, it may be Neuralink’s mission that benefits most from the first-party data learned from Twitter. And, in that respect, Twitter may become Neuralink’s first mass-produced application. The shortest length between a human brain and a set of thumbs was that of Twitter user. Who’s to say that Neuralink’s mission won’t influence that in the coming years?

He didn’t buy a social network – he took one more step closer to understanding the internet mind during an age where artificial intelligence threatens to supplant the humans that made it.

In one of his tweets on Wednesday, the Tesla chief said that humans can actually benefit from Twitter by using its collective brain-power to counter AI because the micro-blogging platform is a “collective, cybernetic super-intelligence”.

Musk bought Twitter for the potential to contribute to the missions shared by Neuralink, SpaceX, Tesla, and Boring Company. He’s not just in it to rebuild the business of it. This isn’t a justification of his approach to making Twitter the value that it could be but it may be an explanation.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

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